Stunt Man

The Stench and the Glory

If you don't like Michael Sailstorfer's work, you can always use the bowling alley.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Michael Sailstorfer’s art takes the every day and makes it whimsical. The viewer becomes a treasure hunter, digging for gold among everyday objects.

  • Facts


    • Michael Sailstorfer was born in Bavaria in 1979 and holds an MA from Goldsmiths College.
    • His work references Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman and Constantin Brancusi.
    • In a recent work, he buried $16,000-worth of gold bars on an English beach and challenged his fans to uncover the loot.
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Michael Sailstorfer is a man who likes to give more than he receives. Most recently, he buried treasure –$16,000 of gold bars – in Folkestone on the southern English coast and challenged his fans to uncover the loot. They showed up with shovels and dug up much of the beach within a few hours, creating giant craters in the process. For one brief moment, art was that which it seldom is – a gleaming promise.

Mr. Sailstorfer has won many admirers over the years with his generosity. Examples of this Berlin-based artist’s sculptures have included a candelabra made from beer bottles rather than crystals –the audience could help themselves. He has built a popcorn machine out of a cement mixer, filing the exhibition space with that wonderful and overpowering aroma of butter and kernels. He has even built a bowling alley in his exhibition space, just in case his visitors should get bored and need some distraction.

The artist, who was born in Bavaria in 1979 and holds an MA from Goldsmiths College in London, has received prestigious awards and invitations to exhibit in Sydney, Sao Paulo and New York. This fall, he is being honored in Germany with exhibitions in Berlin as well as in the town of Kleve, along the Dutch border.

Considering the energy, noise and smells of his work, it is perhaps no coincidence that most of his collectors are male.

But these gimmicks don’t really explain what makes Mr. Sailstorfer, at 35, such a staple of modern art exhibitions these days. Nobody suggests his work is especially ingenious, nor is it really provocative, rebellious or even political. This is indeed part of the goal of his art – he’s not trying to be special. Unlike many of his contemporaries, he doesn’t celebrate his artwork as some sort of masterly, opaque secret. This is art without the flourishes, but with a heightened sense for everyday absurdities.

He wove old police uniforms into an olive-green carpet, the silver buttons gleaming in places, turning the law into a living room ornament. He dismantled four motorhomes and transformed them into household furniture pieces – mobility turned sedentary. He has exploded trees to symbolize our uprooting.

Considering the energy, noise and smells of his work, it is perhaps no coincidence that most of his collectors are male.

Mr. Sailstorfer is aware that this kind of communicative art is not enough. As an added bonus, his work references older works of art history, like those of Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman or Constantin Brancusi. He also adds titles that lend a lyrical-philosophical note to his works. The most famous example is “Time is not a highway.” The title lends itself to a sculpture of stinking, whirring, rotating tires, powered by a loud engine. The tires continuously grind against the same spot on a white wall until the rubber begins to erode.

It is a paradoxical effect in a place normally designed for posterity and timelessness – this exhibit is about wear and tear, and decay. A technically sophisticated ode to death is how many interpreted the piece, while others suggested the stench of rubber is a kind of sculpture in itself.

Rubber tires reborn as ceiling decorations. Source: Bernd Borchardt


Mr. Sailstorfer prefers to see himself as an artist of transformation. That is what makes him relevant in our current society, where stale characters are less admired than people who can reinvent themselves. He is a master of artistic “upcycling” – transforming and upgrading everyday objects into something new. Nothing has to remain as it is. His generosity extends to giving objects a new lease on life.

A plane that is reborn as a tree house. A house turned into a sofa. The burnt rubber of a tire reinvented as a flying black cloud of smoke above the museum ceiling. Only the honeydew melon gets to play itself, although it is racked up like a skewer, lit up like the moon and left to rot and stink – museum officials recommend wearing gas masks for this one.

His work is brutal but engaging. For pieces that have outlived their usefulness, Mr. Sailstorfer attaches them to a slab of concrete and lets them sink to the bottom of the Baltic Sea, where the fish can decide what to make of them. Visitors to the gallery will find a few pictures with the precise coordinates for where to find these sunken treasures.

So far no divers have ventured down to bring these works back. Perhaps this is also because of the nature of the work. The art may be emotive, but once the beer is drunk, the gold is dug up and the bowling pins are knocked down, the pieces become empty. But we have been well-entertained in the process – that makes us feel unexpectedly whole inside.


The exhibition runs until November 9 at the Haus am Waldsee in Berlin and from 28 September to 25 January in the Kurhaus Museum in Kleve. This article first appeared in Die Zeit. To contact the author:

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